Flooding the moral high ground

Greens: thou shalt not moralise

Thou shalt take off the hair shirt; thou are not holier than thou.

This is the message of green mainstreamers, of those who advocate using brands to bring about sustainable consumption and deploying marketing tricks to nudge green behaviour. It is almost an orthodoxy of behaviour change.

[[added later:  see Hermione Taylor of  TheDoNation on “Is the Carrot enough to tackle the monumental issue of climate change?” – no is her short answer]]

But maybe as we seek not just to remedy environmental ills, but also rescue a civilisation – we need to mobilise morality.

My kingdom for a high horse

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, channelling  Muslim philosopoher Ibn Khaldoun,  suggests that empires collapse when they get fat and lazy and that they decay from the inside – when they loose their asabiyah or social cohesion. Russia lost the cold war, Ancient Greece collapsed and Renaissance Italy floundered (the financial system crashed?) not as much as a result of actions of their rivals, but because internal rot set in.

Traditional moral restraints disappeared, because they were seen to be associated with superstition; the liberation from fetters made individuals energetic and creative, producing a rare florescence of genius; but the anarchy and treachery which inevitably resulted from the decay of morals made Italians collectively impotent, and they fell, like the Greeks, under the domination of nations less civilised than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion.

Our moral restraints and social cohesion has been dissipated by a relentless quest for growth in which the atomisation of society has been driven by the need for the expansion of customers for markets. Far better for growth if you can sell one iPad per family member instead of one television per household.

Our rot, driven by market imperatives to growth, is twofold: the loss of asabiyah (social cohesion) and overconsumption (loss of ecosystem cohesion).  We face risks of riots and floods; the marginalised amassing and ice caps retreating.

Time for a wake up story

At Tedx Youth @ Thames – James Thornton of Client Earth said we need to replace our existing story. Currently it is: markets are the best at deciding resource distribution, growth must continue at 2 – 4% p/a, etc…

And he proposed a new core story: The young shall get a healthy planet. It is also an old story. Kyra Choucroun told us that the Iroquoi of North America considered the impact of decisions on 7 generations from now.

Thou art holier than thou

Sacks sees a solution to decay in “remoralising”. This could be taking hold of the new story and creating institutions and individuals that embody it and, perhaps, also judge publicly by it.

There is, to my mind, only one sane alternative. That is to do what England and America did in the 1820s. Those two societies, deeply secularised after the rationalist 18th century, scarred and fractured by the problems of industrialisation, calmly set about remoralising themselves, thereby renewing themselves.

The three decades, 1820-1850, saw an unprecedented proliferation of groups dedicated to social, political and educational reform-building schools, YMCAs, orphanages, starting temperance groups, charities, friendly societies, campaigning for the abolition of slavery, corporal punishment and inhumane working conditions, and working for the extension of voting rights. Alexis de Tocqueville was astonished by what he saw in America and the same process was happening at the same time in Britain.

People did not leave it to government or the market. They did it themselves in communities, congregations, groups of every shape and size. They understood the connection between morality and morale. They knew that only a society held together by a strong moral bond, by asabiyah, has any chance of succeeding in the long run. That collective effort of remoralisation eventually made Britain the greatest world power in the 19th century and America in the 20th.

Time to Moralise?

That Victorian process of remoralising did not hesitate to climb on high horses and flog-them and, according to Sacks, this restored a sense of social cohesion.

So if the intention is to rescue our civilisation from social disintegration and ecosystem disruption is it moralising or mainstreaming that is needed?